It's easy to hit a creative wall when you're running 90 miles per hour to grow your business or take your career to the next level. Rather than staring at a blank page, these four exercises can stoke your imagination and help you feel inspired again.

1. Shadowing

A creative writing professor and accomplished author taught me this technique during my undergraduate studies, and it's been a useful tool for me ever since.

When you get stuck, think of a creative hero who inspires you. Then, find a sample of their work that you particularly like. Try to recreate its style or structure without copying it.

Example: If Mark Twain inspires you, take a paragraph or two of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and rewrite them. You follow the same sentence structure and style but use different words and characters. This will give you a feel for how they craft prose.

Shadowing works across other media as well. You can do the same with design, illustration, and even building a presentation. It will help you get the first draft of a sketch or a couple of slides when you don't know where to start. From there, you can set the sample inspiration aside and continue to create and revise on your own. 

2. Alternative uses

Originally developed by J.P. Guilford in 1967, alternative uses forces you to change your perspective and think beyond the status quo. It's a simple exercise that you can do anytime, anywhere. I've used it as a group activity at offsites and it's always a hit, but works just as well on your own.

Example: Pick an ordinary object, like a stapler or a shoe, and give yourself a time constraint. Five minutes will usually suffice. Then, list as many alternative uses for that item as you can imagine. For a shoe, the list may contain all kinds of whacky ideas like:

  • Planter for herbs

  • The base of a lamp

  • Dog chew toy

  • Tissue container

  • Pen and pencil holder

  • Insulation material

You get the gist. The point is not to find a genius new application (though you might!). The point is to develop divergent thinking, where you create lots of original ideas rather than seeking a single right answer (i.e., convergent thinking). 

This exercise applies whenever you need a creative solution or a new concept. Isolate the thing at the heart of your challenge and brainstorm every possible weird use for it. Or, just follow these steps for a random object to break out of a rut.

3. The five whys

Sakichi Toyoda -- the founder of Toyota Motor Corporation -- came up with this technique to help get to the root of manufacturing problems. When faced with a block, ask yourself, "Why?" five times in a row to suss out the true source of your woes. Each time, you will get a little closer to the solution.

Example: Let's say the problem is that I'm feeling stressed and I'm not sure what to do next. 

Why?: Because I'm overwhelmed.

Why?: Because we are trying to do too many things at once.

Why?: Because we don't have a clear strategy to achieve our goals.

Why?: Because we don't have enough information about our customers to know what they really want.

Why?: Because we haven't finished the necessary research. 

Answer: I need to complete a research plan before moving forward with any other projects. 

4. Switch up your medium

When you do the same type of creative work over and over, it gets harder to keep your mind fresh. By exercising a different part of your brain with a different medium, your creative block should fade away.

Examples: If you're a writer, try drawing some doodles. If you're a designer, try writing. Photography, poetry, even origami -- whatever you can easily step away from your desk and complete in 10 minutes, do it. 

The wonderful thing about creativity is that it's not a finite resource. The more you use it, the more you have. Unlike time or money, it is always available to you -- you must simply unlock it. Whenever you have a problem or block in your way, give one or more of these techniques a whirl. You may surprise yourself with how quickly a solution comes to light.

Published on: Oct 24, 2019
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